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Creating Art Using Photo References

Updated on May 11, 2012
Dbro profile image

I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!

This is the photo I used for the portrait
This is the photo I used for the portrait

The photo on the right is the one I used to do a portrait I was commissioned to do of a friend's husband and son. This photo is a great reference for the portrait - it shows father and son enjoying a common interest, making music. There is much to recommend this picture as a reference. I really like how the son is almost superimposed on the image and the father is framed by his son and the surrounding environment. I also really like all of the angular elements in this image. Diagonal lines in an artistic composition give an impression of dynamic action and excitement, as opposed to horizontal and vertical lines, which elicit calm, peaceful responses. This photo is a good reference, but there are aspects of it that need to be modified and edited. When creating a composition for a drawing or painting, the artist must make decisions about what parts of the reference photos need to be used, which need to be changed, and which need to be left out entirely. This hub will give some advice on making these decisions.

We as artists are often required to use photos as references for our art. Obviously, I couldn't create a portrait based on this scene without a photo of it, since I wasn't at the event when this photo was taken. Also, it would have been very difficult to make detailed drawings from this scene as it was happening. So much motion was going on! However, it would have been fun to be there with my sketchpad. I could have made some good gesture (quick) drawings to capture the sense of motion and excitement in this scene.

A Word of Caution

Before I go any further in this article, I must give a stern warning to artists who use photographs as references for their work. Under NO circumstances is it acceptable to use another person's photo for your work without their express permission. To do so would be infringing on that person's right to that image. The exception to this is if you are a "student" artist who is using the image solely for practicing and honing your skills. You must not otherwise use another person's image to create your own (without their permission), especially if you intend to sell this work. It is far better to take photos yourself for use in your artwork. In this age of digital photography, even the most challenged photographer (like myself) can manage to get very useful photos for their work.

The Initial Sketch

Jam Session, Pencil, 10 x 8"
Jam Session, Pencil, 10 x 8"

Making the Drawing

This is the most exciting time in the life of one of my projects - when the drawing first starts to take shape. At this point, I've roughed in the figures and the major shapes of the items in their environment. Since this is a portrait, I'm paying particular attention to the figures. I'm already working toward getting a likeness of the two individuals. To learn more about improving one's drawing skills as it pertains to portraiture, you may want to refer to my earlier published hubs, The Road Map to a Proportional Face for Portrait Artists, and The Road Map to a Proportional Face in Portraiture - Profile.

If you compare my drawing to the reference photo, you can see that I have made some decisions about the composition of the drawing. I have chosen to emphasize the diagonal elements in this scene. I changed the angle of the guitar or banjo neck that extends into the picture on the left. I also changed the tree in the background so that it presents a more forceful diagonal counterpoint to the strong diagonal of the slope of the roof. I did this to lead the eye back into the drawing, rather than have the viewer's eye leave the drawing by following that roof slope. You can see the longest branch from the tree almost points right back at the son's hat to start the eye roving over the picture again. Clever, no?

Equally important as the decisions about what to emphasize in a reference photo are the decisions about what to leave out. When you refer back to the photo, you see that there is a metal chimney extending up from the roof of the building behind the action. You can see that this chimney just happens to be in a position to where it looks almost like it is growing out of the father's head. Since I did not see any real artistic benefit to this feature, I decided to leave it out altogether. Had I thought it had some positive impact on the composition, I could have simply moved it. Similarly, the pagoda sitting on the deck behind the father seemed to only serve as a distraction from the important elements of the drawing, so I left it out.

Art Instruction Books

Jam Session, Pencil 10 x 8"
Jam Session, Pencil 10 x 8"

Next Steps

Once the drawing has been roughed in, it's time to begin to refine it and bring it to its finished state. This portrait is to be completed in pencil, so I will take this initial drawing and complete it on this paper. If I was going to do a watercolor (oil or acrylic) painting of this subject, I would transfer the drawing onto the ground that I would do the painting on.

Now I begin to add the values I see in my reference photo, placing shadows where they are cast, and indicating lights and darks in the features themselves. For example, the son's shirt is quite dark and it provides a nice contrast to some of the lighter areas around him. An artist can modify the values in a photo reference, but be careful! You must obey the rules of light and shadow, or the final outcome will not ring true. Remember that light always travels in a straight line. If the shadows in your drawing or painting are not cast in a straight line, it will look artificial or "incorrect." Also, if you use more than one reference to complete your work, the lighting must "agree" in your final piece. It cannot appear that the sun is shining from more than one direction, for example.


Using photographs as references for subjects is a common practice among artists today. Most portraitists use photo references when posing subjects for their works. It is a reality that most subjects for portraits do not have the time or inclination to sit in a given pose for hours while the artist does the painting. Additionally, photos give the artist the luxury of time when rendering a complex subject, or one that captures motion.

The artist must remain in control of the painting or drawing, however. He or she must remember that they need to make artistic decisions about how the photograph is to be used. It is not the artist's job to slavishly copy each and every element and detail in a given photo. The artist must use his or her knowledge of design and composition to make the photos work for them, not the other way around.


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    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      I'm glad this proved useful to you, carol7777. Your comments are very encouraging to me. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      As a suffering artist I found this article excellent and of course well written...Not to mention I learned some stuff. Of course I will have to reread it a dozen times. Keep up the great work.